It’s (sadly) no surprise that tweens and teens are frequently subjected to sexual harassment through social media. But how do teens respond to these incidents — and what are social media providers doing about the problem?
To help answer those questions, researchers in Belgium set out to examine what prompts kids to report offensive or abusive incidents to social media providers.
The disheartening answer: Most don’t.
The study, conducted in 2014 and published last week in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, surveyed 1,015 students between the ages of 11 and 19 and found that more than 300 had experienced sexual harassment through social media within the previous six months. The vast majority of incidents (about 78 percent) occurred on Facebook, with a smaller number on Ask.fm and Instagram. (Twitter and Snapchat were included in the survey but registered negligible complaints, said researcher and study co-author Kathleen Van Royen.)
Of the 300 students who said they had been harassed — the study defined harassment as unwelcome or graphic “sexual and gender-degrading comments” — only 60 reported the abuse to the social media providers. About half received a response, and the offending content was removed in only 18 cases.
Which could reinforce the perception among some teens that “nothing is done” even if an incident is reported, Van Royen said.
Many teens also said they took no action because the harassment they experienced wasn’t “severe enough” to warrant a formal complaint, she said.
“We don’t know whether the event was actually less serious, or that maybe these persons are less vulnerable, as sexual harassment is highly dependent on individual perception,” Van Royen said.
Some students said they worried that complaining would only make the situation worse, while others said they didn’t file a report because they weren’t convinced that it would do any good. Of the group surveyed — 51 percent boys, 49 percent girls — the girls were more likely to be targeted, and also more likely to report their experience, the study found.
Van Royen said that she wasn’t shocked by the significant level of harassment or the low level of reporting. But the study shed new light on the troublesome lack of response from social media providers, which compounds the problem.
“The results suggest there is room for improvement for providers to deal with harassment reports,” she said.
The researchers found that many teens file reports because they feel particularly distraught, and believe that they have no way of controlling the situation themselves. One way to address that issue, researchers suggested, is to offer users more options for moderating publicly visible content about them — i.e., give them more power to remove an offensive comment or photo.
Van Royen hopes that future studies will include more detailed feedback from teens themselves. “Victims of harassment can provide valuable information on what kind of support they need,” she said. But at a minimum, service providers might respond to harassment complaints from their youngest users by offering more information, or links to organizations that support victims of harassment and bullying.
“It is important for providers to actually do something with these reports,” she said.